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Greg Nicotero is a true artist. His medium: blood. His canvas: the human body. As special-effects makeup artist and consulting producer on AMC’s The Walking Dead, Nicotero gives life to the series’ legions of undead.
A Picasso of the horror genre, he has put the blood and guts into a long list of projects including Kill Bill (both volumes), Inglourious Basterds, The Pacific and at least one movie from just about every franchise in the American horror canon: The Amityville Horror, Halloween, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street. But zombies are what he was born to do. Nicotero is a native of Pittsburgh, the locale of George A. Romero’s classic trilogy Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. He was in high school when Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978, and by the time Romero was in production on 1985’s Day of the Dead, Nicotero had decided not to follow in his physician father’s footsteps by going to medical school. Instead, he was learning at the knee of renowned Dead makeup artist Tom Savini.
“Day of the Dead was my first job,” Nicotero says. “People from Pittsburgh feel like because George Romero sort of invented and developed the zombie rules, that we own it. Anyone from Pittsburgh is like: ‘Hey, I shopped at the Monroeville Mall. I know where the Evans City Cemetery is. I’m a zombie expert. F– you; I know what I’m talking about.’ “
Nicotero’s Guide to Zombie Making
STEP 1: Casting
“The idea was, as people die and start to decompose, we see the shape of their skull,” he says. “So we handpicked performers who had really big eyes, long, thin faces and even longer necks so that when we did prosthetics on them, it didn’t look like we were building up their faces.”
During preproduction on the first season of Walking Dead, Nicotero auditioned more than 150 extras.
“There were a couple of guys who were literally 98 pounds and had really long necks,” he says. “I looked at them and said, ‘You would make a fantastic featured zombie.’ And of course, they took that as a great compliment.”
STEP 2: Dentures
Exposed teeth are a common visual cue in Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novel on which the AMC series is based.
“As the zombie becomes more decomposed, the skin stretches and reveals the teeth,” Nicotero says. “So we built dentures that actually mounted on the outside of the actors’ faces and covered their lips.”
STEP 3: The Head
The dentures are then incorporated into the head cast, and the whole face is sculpted out of clay with various traumas and wounds.
“Sometimes you’re just seeing a little bit of cheekbone,” Nicotero says. “Other times, there are giant hack marks. We deconstruct how each of these zombies died to illustrate that in the makeup. Some of them were bitten; some of them were shot in the head. And those are always fun conversations.
STEP 4: The Prosthetic
After the makeup is sculpted, the prosthetic head is manufactured with foam latex — a traditional material for prosthetics — or 3D transfers, which are akin to water tattoos. “You put it on the actor’s face, spritz it with water, peel it away, and you have an instant wound,” Nicotero says.
STEP 5: Hair and Makeup
The effects are applied to the prosthetic, then the actor sits for hair and makeup. “We went with a yellowish base tone, and then we applied some browns and purples,” Nicotero says. “We darkened the eye sockets and the cheeks to make them look sallow. Then we would go in and add dried blood. We’d put the dentures in. And for the final augmentation, we would put contact lenses in all the featured zombies. Some of the lenses were bloodshot, some of them had cataracts, some of them were a little yellowish and kind of looked diseased. Then we put wigs on them to simulate the idea that the hair was starting to fall out because they were decomposing.”
STEP 6: The Blood
“The way you dress blood really does simulate violence,” says Nicotero. He and partner Howard Berger at KNB Efx Group manufacture all of their own blood, and texture is important; such materials as oatmeal, Styrofoam peanuts and pieces of foam and latex simulate tissue, bone fragments and brain matter. “When you blow the back of the head off, everything flies at a different rate. The Styrofoam stuff doesn’t get heavy because it doesn’t absorb any liquid, so it will fly farther than some oatmeal or bits of foam that will absorb the blood.”
Nicotero is also a master of the splatter pattern.”If you pour a little bit of blood on the ground, it’s a little blood puddle,” he says. “But if you dress the blood so that it looks like an explosion, visually it simulates violence.”
For the climactic dead-zombie scene in front of Atlanta’s CDC headquarters in the final episode of Season 1, Nicotero hit on an ingenious method for achieving authentic splatter patterns.
“We filled balloons with blood and just started throwing them in the air, and wherever the balloon would hit, it would make this great explosion of blood. And then we’d tell extras, ‘OK, go lay on the ground and put your head right there.’ It looked fantastic.”
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